Astronomy is indeed one of humanity’s greatest obsessions, dating back to prehistoric times — long before the Scientific Revolution revealed the extent of our solar system and the entire Universe. For all purposes, humans have been looking at the stars (that’s the sky) for as long as we’ve grazed the planet. No wonder at team of researchers discovered ancient cave paintings of primordial astronomical calendars. Yes, caveman astronomy.
Related media: History And Science Of Ancient Astronomy
The Caveman Astronomy
For decades, most scholars thought that complex astronomical phenomena — like the precession of the equinoxes — were recent discoveries by the ancient Greeks. Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent released their findings of evidence that show how ancient cave paintings that date back to 40,000 years ago may, in fact, be astronomical calendars that monitored the equinoxes and kept track of major events.
The team’s study, ‘Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient Knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes,’ recently appeared in the Athens Journal of History. The researchers studied the details of Paleolithic and Neolithic art featuring animal symbols from archeological sites in France, Germany, Spain, and Turkey. They found that all of these sites had similar methods of tracking time, despite the fact that they were created by different people distances and times apart.
According to the team’s analysis, these cave paintings were not the depiction of animals as previously thought, but instead, they were depiction of constellations. They represented dates and marked major astronomical events like comet sitings which in a sense, demonstrated how ancient civilizations kept track of time. This is how the constellations appeared to slowly shift in circles in the night sky, roughly a period of 25,920 years. This is the result of axial precession: a slow, continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical body’s rotational axis.
“Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age.” Dr. Martin B. Sweatman, a professor with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, and the team’s led author, explained in a press release. “Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today. These findings support a theory of multiple comet impacts over the course of human development, and will probably revolutionize how prehistoric populations are seen.”
Reinterpreting Cave Art
Their analysis clarified earlier findings at Gobekli Tepe, some stone carvings located in Turkey. This site dates back to 10,950 Before the Common Era (B.C.E), which is the oldest known temple site in the world. In a previous study conducted by Dr Sweatman and Dr Dimitrios Tsikritsis, also at the University of Edinburgh, they interpreted this site as the memorial site of a devastating comet strike around 11,000 B.C.E. This strike might have initiated a mini ice-age known as the Younger Dryas period, abruptly 12,500 years ago, which lasted 1,200 years.
The team examined the depictions of animals reliefs at the site by using the planetarium program Stellarium 0.15, and concluded that the images were similar to constellations that would have been visible in 10,950 B.C.E. In their study, team made a simulation with the Stellarium 0.18 and made comparisons of various artworks from different location with similar stellar positions in ancient times. After this, they were then able to decode (probably) the famous artwork from ancient times: the Lascaux Shaft Scene — a series of caves paintings in Lascaux, France.
These paintings feature a scene of a dying man together with several animals, which might be the early recording of a comet strike that happened around 15,200 B.C.E. Furthermore, the team found the world’s oldest sculpture (the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave) in southern Germany which appears to conform to this ancient time-keeping system. This dates back to 38,000 B.C.E., and is the earliest piece of evidence of prehistoric astronomy. Like we said, “caveman astronomy.”
Like Stars In The Sky
They also examine an ancient settlement, Catalhöyük, in modern day Turkey that existed approximately 7,500 to 5,700 B.C.E. From the excavations made, they found cavings of animals — auroch heads, ram heads, a bear symbol, and the pouncing lion/leopard — which was similar to those found at Gobekli Tepe. These were believe to be representations of well-known constellation like Capricornus, Aries, Ursa, and Cancer. Have you ever seen these at night?
What this means is that, humans as early as 40,000 years ago, were looking up at the sky and recognizing patterns of the stars; and with this knowledge they were able to keep track of time based on the position of star formations (constellations) over the course of several millennia. The similarities found at these sites indicate that these primordial traditions were passed on from generation to generation and from place to place by prehistoric settlers across the world.
In summary, ancient civilizations had a pretty fair understanding of astronomy, even if they didn’t know what it really meant. All that knowledge could have been what spark the dawn of the migratory era as humans dispersed all around the world; and knowing this now could help anthropologists further understand their theories of when and how migration occurred over the centuries.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sun, May 12, 2019.